Chef Takeover: Penelope Wong of Yuan Wonton

BY Linnea Covington

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A lot has been going on with Penelope Wong, chef and owner of Yuan Wonton in Park Hill. For starters, a few weeks ago she became a finalist for the James Beard Awards, Best Chef: Mountain. Before that she launched her first brick and mortar spot near the end of 2023. And before that, Wong ran one of the hottest food trucks around, which she started in 2019. 

Now, on Monday, the chef will take us through a day in her life prepping for the week’s service, which includes thousands of wontons, dumplings, and bao, among other tasty foods. It’s the second day of Mile High Asian Food Week (MHAFW), now in its second year, and Wong anticipates even more customers than the normal days. 

Find out what it takes to make some of the best wontons in Denver, and follow along to win a prize via social media. 

Take a seat and enjoy some of the best wontons around. | Photo by Linnea Covington

The Restaurant

Wong opened Yuan Wonton in its permanent Park Hill spot just last fall. But while the customer base is there, it’s been difficult to get going, she said. 

“It’s been a massive roller coaster getting this space opened up with all the delays, the city and permitting, and even the construction process,” she added. “Believe it or not, we’re still dealing with the city as far as getting a permanent sign up. We’ve been open for six months and we can’t get a permanent sign up because they keep telling us that our building doesn’t exist. Which is hilarious because it was a restaurant before.”

Yuan Wonton definitely exists. We stopped in at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, and within an hour the place was mostly full. There’s a chef’s counter overlooking the expeditor window, and simple two- and four-top tables. Live plants hang lavishly from the ceiling, while smaller bits of green drape over shelves and random open spaces. With tall windows lining two sides of the restaurant, it’s a beacon of sunbeams, perfect given it’s only open during daylight hours. 

Another feat, the restaurant only serves Tuesday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. On the weekends the space hosts Sweets and Sourdough, which is open Thursday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

penelope wong at yuan wonton
Chef Penelope Wong of Yuan Wonton. | Photo by Linnea Covington

The Chef

Wong is a Colorado native with Chinese-Thai-American heritage. For years she has been  working in kitchens, and before launching the Yuan Wonton food truck she held the title as the first female and youngest executive chef to work at Glenmoor Country Club in Cherry Hills Village. As for her rise to fame, Wong remains humble.

“It’s still unbelievable,” she said about the James Beard nomination. “I have zero expectations, and never, ever in my life would have ever imagined that this would happen, that we’d go this far.” 

Wong isn’t new to restaurants, her family ran a Cantonese spot in North Denver and she grew up learning to cook. Eventually, around the age of 12, she started working in the kitchen. Her joy of food never left, and with Yuan Wonton she’s dedicated to not only whipping up good things for people to eat, but sources quality ingredients and makes everything in house from the sauces to the dough.

bowls of beef and red rice and chopstick
Grab your chopsticks and try the shaking beef at Yuan Wonton. | Photo by Linnea Covington

The Food

The menu changes daily, so it’s impossible to know exactly what you’ll get. It also spans different countries with influences from Vietnam, China, and Thailand. Expect plenty of wontons though, there’s seven on rotation. During a recent visit this included Tom Kha Chicken Wontons ($18), Szechuan Eggplant Dumplings ($18), and the wontons that made her famous, dubbed YW OG Chili Oil Wontons ($18). Yes, you will want all of them and that’s okay. 

The rest of the menu isn’t long, but every item sounds divine. For example, you may wander in on a Tuesday and order bò lúc lắc, or sous chef NgocAnh Nguyen’s Vietnamese shaking beef ($19) atop a bed of fresh arugula, tomato, shaved red onion and a shallot vinaigrette. Definitely stir it up, and then take each bite with the accompanying tomato rice. Wong also makes Dad’s Egg Rolls ($8), a recipe indeed taken from her father who helped the chef learn to cook. 

The Takeover 

Mondays, said Wong, are the biggest production day after getting wiped out from a busy week of service. 

“The day starts with all of our fillings for all of our dumplings that we mix by hand,” said the chef. “We’re peeling all the ginger, we’re handcrafting everything and mixing everything, and then, simultaneously, we have dough production going on for our dumplings because all of our doughs are made from scratch.”

Viewers may even get a glimpse of the special mooncakes Wong is preparing for MHAFW. It’s a Chinese delicacy, and the first time she’s making this iteration.

“It’s one of the funniest things that we’ve tackled, and one of the most frustrating,” added Wong. “We’ve had a lot of failures, and we’re trying something new this year with a recipe we’ve never done before.”

Mention MHAFW and get said mooncakes, as well as the special XL Xiao Long Bao Soup Dumplings. And then order everything else. 

Visit Yuan Wonton Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3  p.m., 2878 Fairfax St., Denver, no website

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Linnea Covington

Linnea Covington is the managing editor of DiningOut. She comes to us with a long background in food, restaurant and drinks journalism. Over the last two decades she’s written for tons of publications including Denver Post, Washington Post, Forbes Travel Guide, 5280 Magazine, New York Magazine, New York Times, Time Out New York and more.

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